SEATTLE - Riley Griffiths had just started eighth grade at Beaver Lake Middle School in Issaquah, Wash., last fall. And then Hollywood called.
Griffiths, now 14, had just moved here with his family from Utah, but he had a bit of unfinished business out of town. Months earlier, he'd sent in an audition tape for "Super 8," the latest movie from J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek," "Cloverfield," TV's "Lost"). Set in 1979, the movie features a group of preteen kids who stumble upon something terrifying while making their own Super-8 movie. Griffiths was called back to Los Angeles a few times, to read scenes and interact with other young actors, over several months.
"We just clicked instantly," Griffiths, now back home, said of the "Super 8" young cast, which included four other boys and one girl (Elle Fanning). "I kept on seeing the same guys at pretty much every callback. I had an idea that we'd got it. We were best friends going into the movie."
The adventure began quickly, soon after Abrams called to tell an excited Griffiths - who had done some stage work in Utah, but never been in a film before - that he had the part. "We had about two weeks of rehearsals, and then we went straight to West Virginia and started filming." About half the film was shot in the "very, very small town" of Weirton, W.Va., and the rest in Los Angeles on a soundstage.
Griffiths played the role of Charles, a would-be director who's the visionary behind the kids' movie. Abrams taught him how to operate a Super-8 camera and run a projector - and gave Griffiths a model for Charles. "Whenever I was playing the director, I'd just look at J.J. and see what he was doing," said Griffiths. "I didn't follow him around or anything, but you see him every day on the set, watching the takes and the acting, so it was just kind of a given to put him in."
His favorite scene was the elaborate train crash witnessed by the kids early in the film - their first inkling that something is terribly wrong in Lillian, Ohio.
"The set dressing was amazing," Griffiths said. "Busted-up train cars, a crashed truck. There were real explosions going on around us." The young actors did their own stunts in that sequence, after having them cleared for safety by stunt doubles. "It was pretty much all running and jumping over stuff. Pretty much a teenager's dream - to run through explosions!"
The movie wrapped shortly before Christmas, and Griffiths returned to real life in Issaquah 30 pounds heavier (gained for the role, but quickly lost after a growth spurt) and with "superlong" '70s hair - "not me at all!" He'll begin high school in the fall and loves sports - "football, basketball, baseball, snowboard, mountain bike."
The experience of "Super 8" brought him a new role model (Abrams is "just an amazing guy") and a confirmed desire: "Acting's what I want to do for the rest of my life." He's now reading a few scripts, scheduling a few meetings, hoping to make another film soon and maybe someday have his own production company. "J.J. taught me so much about everything, so much about making my acting better. This was really just one big acting class for me. It was just the best."